It may be his World Cup after all. Lionel Messi is set to face the adversaries of football and the sands of time in equal measure this month, but here he has dismissed both with a brilliance that no matter what happens to him and Argentina from here , will be cherished by those privileged to witness. His side was close to oblivion on an intense, pressured and painful night where the potential ramifications seemed to suffocate everyone. Messi was firmly among that number until he broke through limited Mexico with a thrilling goal that guaranteed him at least one more dance on this stage and has the potential to change the course of this tournament.
Messi’s left-footed finish was aesthetically surpassed by a lavish late curler from Enzo Fernández, but his 64th-minute opener was nonetheless for the ages. This did not correspond to an occasion when little had happened. There had been gasps as he sent a wayward pass over the left sideline, but then, after Ángel Di María cut a deliberate ball in front of the opposite side, the tenor moved with force.
Di María had located a rare space 22 yards out, but Messi’s first touch, cushioning the ball to set up the shot, was simple but masterful poetry. It meant he could aim before a Héctor Herrera dive could block, raking in a precise low drive to Guillermo Ochoa’s left and heralding pandemonium. Argentina would have been sent home if they had lost: there was no chance of that happening now and the rest of the game was a reminder of just how convincing this team can be when they come loose.
Six days after its opening, it looked like the first big meeting of Qatar 2022. It is difficult to suspend its deep unease around the foundations on which this competition was built but, to take it for itself, the atmosphere at the inside this gap the arena was simply electric. The host country could not have asked for a more thrilling audio-visual display to show off its global audience: the anthems of the galleries flowing in light blue echoed below the roof and were almost matched in volume by the cacophony emitted by large pockets of Mexicans, in outnumbered but insistently present, dressed in green.
Each of them knew what was at stake. So did those on the pitch and there was an obvious appetite to show it. Within seven minutes, Mexico striker Alexis Vega had left Gonzalo Montiel writhing in exaggerated pain with a thrown arm and had thrown Rodrigo De Paul onto his back as he continued a pass down the flank. Soon De Paul found himself in the center of attention again, shoved around by 36-year-old Andrés Guardado, and if Mexico lacked any advantage in their attacking forays, he was happy to compensate with snaps and grunts.
Néstor Araujo then proved the point, leaving Marcos Acuña in a heap with a challenge who took the ball with a big hunk of man. De Paul, surely feeling victimized by now, was crushed by Vega near the Mexico left-corner flag and Argentina screamed when Héctor Moreno appeared to control Messi from the ball.
It’s a distillation of the opening-period rap sheet, and more or less its action, though Argentina were far from angels themselves. Right-back Montiel, one of five newcomers to Lionel Scaloni’s starting line-up, showed it just before half-time by sending Erick Gutiérrez, who had recently replaced injured Guardado, flying as he exploded in the space. But their biggest concern was finding some semblance of rhythm, and by the break it had completely slipped their minds.
Had Scaloni changed too much? They showed little cohesion despite taking a better slice of territory as half-time continued, with the decision to remove Leandro Paredes from midfield looking particularly suspicious. Messi looked for pockets of space but found one of Mexico’s three centre-backs, usually Moreno, coming out to choke. He managed to nod ambitiously and forced Ochoa to hit an angled set-piece; Lautaro Martínez was temperamental with half a chance but the most eye-catching moment came at the other end when Emiliano Martínez, perhaps keen to give the cameramen a show away from the surrounding collage, dove to catch the free kick from Vega.
The quality had to be better. Or maybe not, because the tension and the aversion to defeat clearly inhibited both sides. Four minutes into the restart, Argentina threatened their most deft shot yet when Alexis Mac Allister, another beneficiary of Scaloni’s reshuffle, carefully sent Messi towards the box only for Gutiérrez to dive and earn a booking. Messi drifted the high free kick into audible moans. The concern escalated when Messi and Lautaro Martínez failed to read each other, with the former only finding the billboards.
You of little faith. Messi quickly rolled back the years and then moved on to Fernández for the icing on the cake.